Liminal Truth: People, Story, and Song in The Perilous Gard

The discussion below is full of spoilers, so if you haven’t read The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, please stop now and shut this page. Or read something else. I really am about to discuss everything major that happens.

The Perilous Gard 1

Well. I’m about to discuss everything major that happens insofar as it relates to one of the central questions of The Perilous Gard, a question that, though not, perhaps, a major plot point, permeates the narrative. And it is a particularly interesting question because the text seems to argue one thing while offering evidence for the opposite perspective, and because every review that I have ever read of this book seems firmly convinced that the perspective that the story seems to argue against is in fact the truth.

One could argue, I suppose, that the whole story revolves around the truth, around interpretations of truth, around the telling of stories about one’s own people and about people who are not one’s own, about history and memory and storytelling, including the musical form of storytelling that is balladry.

But that’s getting fancy. Here’s a refresher of the pertinent parts of the plot:

Kate Sutton is a lady-in-waiting to the Lady Elizabeth. The setting is Queen Mary’s England, summer of 1558. The queen banishes Kate to an isolated northern castle called Elvenwood Hall, better known as the Perilous Gard, under the care of Sir Geoffrey Heron. Sir Geoff is great but he’s not around for very long, and soon Kate and Sir Geoffrey’s younger brother, Christopher, are prisoners of Those that rule over the Well, also known as the People of the Hill, or, more plainly, the Fairy Folk. Christopher is a prisoner because he offers himself in exchange for his brother’s young daughter, whom they had believed dead. Kate is a prisoner because she gets caught. Those That Rule the Well need Christopher to pay the teind for them (i.e. be sacrificed to renew the land/their power), and Kate is just a convenient addition to their small group of mortal servant women. Unlike the other three women, Kate elects to keep her mind, even if it means suffering unbearable attacks of the weight, the full and visceral knowledge of the thousands of pounds of stone twisting above her head. She also has a slender strand of hope: before she was taken underground, she sent off a letter to Sir Geoffrey with Randal, the half-mad minstrel whose wits were taken, so he says, by the Fairy Folk so that he’d never be able to betray them. Kate slowly gains favour and is taught by Gwenhyfara, a Fairy woman, how to walk like the People of the Hill. Gwenhyfara plans to teach Kate more of her people’s ways, as well. On the night of the teind, Kate sneaks out, saves Sir Geoffrey’s daughter, and rescues Christopher, thus breaking the last of the Fairy Folk’s remaining centres of power. The Lady returns to the Perilous Gard briefly to ask a favour and in exchange to give Kate a gift, in fact a cruel revenge. Kate grants the favour and declines the “gift”, at which the Lady bows to her as if to an equal, a queen.

So. The question is, then, are The People of the Hill fairy folk, or are they, as Kate believes, devotees of heathen gods who went (literally) underground and kept their own ways when Christianity spread throughout Britain? Every review I have seen takes the Fairy part as true. So what does the text say?

When Kate learns of her sentence, Master Roger (the Lady Elizabeth’s tutor) raises the rumours about the Perilous Gard only to dismiss them as superstitious nonsense.

“When I was young, the country old women all believed that the Fairy Folk would steal children away with them if they could; and this … goes back to the days when the old pagans did take human beings to offer in sacrifice to their gods, like the Druids of Britain and France according to the report of Julius Caesar. Then also the Fairy Folk are said to deck themselves out with gold, and live in great ceremony, dancing and singing, as the heathen gods were accustomed to do.” (p. 13)

He stops short, however, of repeating some of “the curious tales” (14) said about the Elvenwood. Why is not stated. It is suggested, by his glance and shaken head at the Lady Elizabeth, that the tales would frighten Kate to no purpose; these might also suggest that the tales are credible and that Master Roger is aware that Kate is going into a dangerous situation, even if he believes that he danger comes from Queen Mary’s wrath rather than the Fairy Folk he so blithely dismisses.

The country folk living in the Elvenwood, in contrast, including old Dorothy, Kate’s temporary servant, are absolutely terrified of and have no doubt but that the Fairy Folk are a very real danger.

“Do you mean,” Kate ventured, “that [the Fairy Folk] are men and women like ourselves?”

“Like ourselves?” The redheaded woman seemed puzzled by the question. “How could they be like ourselves? They cannot abide cold iron or the sound of church bells, and they cannot be moved by pity because they have no hearts in their bodies.” (p. 79)

Kate, rational Kate, is quite certain that the Fairy Folk are in fact “true believers, lore masters, priests and priestesses” of the old gods, humans who continued their ways of living and of worshiping in secret. In this she is supported by two facts: one, that she saw the Lady in the Green, who was certainly not a peasant or a goddess; therefore, the mysterious People were real. Two, that Sir Geoffrey’s daughter (Cecily) could not possibly have fallen down the Well as she was supposed to have; the brim was too high for a child of four years to reach. The country folk attributed the child’s disappearance to the Fairy Folk; very well, then, they were correct on that score.

Christopher, once Randal unknowingly proves that Cecily is alive, agrees with Kate’s conclusions. He takes it a step farther:

“I’m not saying they’re gods or anything of the kind. It’s that we don’t know how their minds work. We can’t judge them by ourselves. Whatever they are, they’re different. They live by another rule.” (p. 99-100)

Notice the tension in that paragraph. The People are human, not gods; they live according to a different code and hold different beliefs. Their minds are different. They are different. Here’s the catch – “whatever they are.” Even when Kate and Christopher seem to have logically worked out who the People are, there is a lingering element of mystery.

Throughout the story, no matter that Kate believes them to be humans like herself, the narrative refers to the Lady and her people as Fairy Folk. Their magic? Just medicine and illusion. Their beliefs, particularly concerning their superiority to Kate and her people? Deliberately taught to the young.

I think this is one of the most marvelous things about this story, this tension. No matter how remote and Other the People seem, there is a reasonable explanation. No matter how perfect the explanation, there are nagging ends left loose and an unshakable sense of mystery.

The Guardian of the Well is the most obviously non-human of the People, and yet all of them have remarkable knowledge of herbs and medicines. They seem impervious to the deep underground cold, wearing loose cloth layers while Kate shivers in a robe of furs. They are better able to bear the weight than other mortals; the Lady suggests that she is able to control these attacks within her realm, to some degree:

“I did not make the seeing easy, or the burden light, for I had to test and be sure of you.” (p. 206)

The drug they give to Christopher has no modern counterpart, even if the spell cast on Kate is obviously hypnosis, and the Lady describes her people as shapeshifters, a term which suggests more than the disguises they adopt when they travel in the world outside. The Lady also mentions a price she will have to pay for returning once the Holy Place is broken, indicating real consequences for her actions even though there is no apparent authority above her. The Lady and Gwenhyfara are very clear – consistently emphatic – that their people and Kate’s people are not the same.

And yet they are practical, “healing” pilgrims who come to their Well according to how useful the pilgrims are to them, and engaging in trade with outsiders. They learn to be scornful of other mortals, learn how to walk and to speak, to bear light and follow the signs. These are teachable skills, which can be passed to outsiders: Gwenhyfara teaches Kate to walk and plans to teach her to talk; the Lady determines that Kate will learn the other skills, as well. They, too, suffer from attacks of the weight.

The Lady in the Green and the Lady Elizabeth are described in very similar terms. Both are always “the Lady,” never without the prefix. Both have a commanding presence, are used to authority, and hold the loyalty of their people. They have supreme self-control. Neither suffers fools, and both are associated with disdain and clear voices. They both make promises to Kate. They are also opposites: the Lady Elizabeth ascends to power at the end of the story, whiles the Lady in the Green loses the last Holy Place in England. The Lady Elizabeth may be scornful but she never looks upon others as if they were animals. And the Lady in Green is always a step removed:

Only the eyes had changed. There was no brilliance in them now, and no mockery. They seemed almost weary, intent and sad – or rather, filled with something that would have been sadness if it was possible to imagine any human sadness so wholy [sic] free from  the least touch of human misery or human longing or human shame or human compassion or human regret. (p. 208)

Unsurprisingly, living as a servant of the Fairy Folk changes Kate. She adopts their terms, or at least the narrator does, describing Gwenhyfara and her kind as Fairy Folk and Kate and the other servants as mortal women. Kate interprets the Lady’s tone and gaze as looking on ordinary mortals the way she might a litter of puppies, or a promising foal; as the narrative progresses, Kate turns increasingly to animal similes to describe herself and others. Kate learns to think the way the Lady’s people do, even if she sees the world differently. She is twice mistaken for a fairy woman, once before her imprisonment, by the villagers; once immediately afterward, by Randal.

And then we come to the ballads. Ballads and folklore tell the truth, but not all of it. Master Roger’s lore is partly true, though rather than bedeck themselves in gold, the Fairy Folk hold gold in abhorrence. Randal plays Twa Sisters when Kate is jealous of her younger, spoiled sister. Tam Lin and the rescue from the Fairies of a mortal man by a mortal woman is confirmed as true by the Lady. Kate knows very little of Tam Lin, but her rescue of Christopher repeats Janet’s rescue through a less literal (or perhaps less metaphorical?) means: where Janet pulls Tam off a horse and holds him through a series of transformations, Kate answers the ritual call and takes her turn in persuading Christopher as the Guardian of the Well twists (transforms) her words and Christopher’s perception of what is going on. Stubbornness, for both women, is a virtue and an obstinate (tactless) character their means of victory. At the novel’s close,

Randal was making it all into a ballad, and after a while nobody would believe it was ever anything more than a tale. (p. 280)

So. Which is the truth? Kate is wonderfully level-headed about it all, and she, Christopher, and Sir John (that conniving creep), the three humans with the closest dealings with the Fairy Folk, all conclude that the People of the Hill are people, heathen people, perhaps, whose minds work differently than their own, but nevertheless, mortals; humans.

And yet Randal claims that the Fairy Folk took his wits, and Kate at one point thinks that whatever else she might forgive the Fairy Folk, she cannot forgive them that. She is also sure, when Sir Geoffrey plans to fell the People’s dancing oak, that she “would [not] care to put to sea in any ship that was fashioned out if its timber.” (p. 260) She chooses to continue to live, in some ways, as the Fairy Folk had taught her to, even if she never acknowledges that they are anything more than a different people.

This non-resolution, one way or another, of the question of the Folk, is of course deliberate. We are not supposed to have a definitive answer, or Elizabeth Marie Pope would have provided one in place of all this conflicting evidence. So. What do you think?

  • Thanks for this fascinating post; I’ll have to read the book again before I decide what I think, but it’s definitely food for thought! (and a lovely book).

    • Janet

      I look forward to hearing what you decide!

  • What a great analysis! I think that perfect balance between rational explanation and mystery is what gives this story such power. You’re right: there isn’t an answer, because do we ever get answers to all the stories we tell ourselves? Can everything be explained rationally, scientifically, or are there things about the universe we just have to believe without understanding? Closing yourself off to either possibility leads to a skewed perspective. It’s the human ability to hold both realities —ha! like Schrodinger’s Cat!—in our minds at once, that allows us to navigate a very big and complicated universe.

    Now you’ve got me waxing all philosophical! (And now I want to read the book again!)

    • Janet

      Thanks! If I made you want to reread, my job is done. I like how you summarize my entire argument in five tidy sentences. Keep on waxing philosophical 🙂